You guys, I have not perished, joined a cult, been in captivity, or gotten trapped under something heavy. I just caught a nasty cold basically the second I landed in Europe last Fall, and I couldn’t shake it the whole time I was there. Writing while feeling lousy just felt like an extra chore I didn’t have the energy for. I apparently need clear sinuses to hear the muse! Anyhoo, I am fine now, still on the road, and will get back to my blog once I untangle my thoughts. A lot has happened!
Aphrodite. Venus. Everyone’s favorite mythical goddess of love, sex, and all things sensual. Inspiration for innumerable classical works of art, including Botticelli’s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus—easily, one of the top three most commercially exploited images of the Italian Renaissance (the other two being Michelangelo’s David and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa).
Botticelli should have named his famous painting The Debut of Venus, or something like that, because it really depicts the goddess’ post-birth arrival on the scene, after she surfed around the ocean “like sea lettuce” on her seashell, according to The Anacreontea.
Had Botticelli instead painted the commonly accepted version of her mythical birth, the image would likely not have ended up being silk-screened on tens of thousands of t-shirts and coffee mugs today. Why? Because, that scene involved the cutting off of the evil god Uranus’ genitals with a serrated knife by his son, who then tossed the severed twigs and berries into the sea, where they swirled around for a while until they turned into a lovely maiden (as they do), who sprang forth from the sea foam on the island of Cyprus. Ta-da! Aphrodite. But, that’s more like Goya subject matter, if you ask me. Botticelli was a little too genteel for such carnage.
In any event, the precise location our lady of the amputated junk is supposed to have risen from the sea, according to the ancient cult of Aphrodite, is a big rock on the southern coast of Cyprus, conveniently near where they built a massive temple in her honor around 1500 B.C. The mythical birth site inspires TripAdvisor contributors to reach into the profound, romantic depths of their souls, and wax poetic:
- “there is a parking place and … [t]here were rocks but also some sand on the beach” — EdyT;
- “nothing to see just a big rock” – jacyW from the UK;
- “not very nice beach and horrible car park” – sleepycat from the UK;
- “weird and ugly, lots of seaweed” – GezaS;
- “it’s just a rock in the sea” – Droglis from Ireland.
I was laughing at these earthbound reviews over breakfast one morning while in Paphos, Cyprus, and the waiter asked me what was so funny. I showed him the reviews, and he grimaced, as though a foul smell had wafted past his nose. “These people don’t deserve the magic,” he said in his sunkissed Mediterranean accent. “When there is a rainbow, they probably complain about the rain.” And then he told me about the local legend, that if you find a stone on the beach in the shape of a heart, you put the stone in a hole or crevice on Aphrodite’s Rock, and the goddess will bring you love and passion within a year.
The site is easy enough to find, well marked, right off the coastal highway southeast of Paphos, and the car park, while nothing to write home about, was not horrible at all, contrary to what sleepycat from the UK might say. Access to the beach, however, was another story. I crossed the highway, and looked all the way up and down the road for an opening in the safety barrier that keeps people from careening off the bluff into the ocean. Not a break in the fence as far as the eye could see. The double-railed barrier was just high enough to be difficult to climb over, and just low enough that I wasn’t willing to try to wiggle under it. So, I opted for the trusty, grade school era, “dead man’s drop” method of clearing the obstacle, wherein you hoist yourself up on your hands, with the top of the bar at your hips, and lean over it until gravity tips you over and you feel yourself about to drop on your head on the other side, at which point you kind of flip your legs over and land on your feet.
Not having performed this maneuver since the fifth grade, however, and not being 11 years old and 85 pounds anymore, mine was somewhat less graceful, vastly more painful, and the dismount resulted in the sacrifice of a sandal, and a pulsating hematoma on my upper thigh meat that’s going to look like a stained glass window in a few days. But, I had successfully reached the other side. It was only when I reached the bottom of the treacherous path down to the beach that I noticed the nice, flat, paved pedestrian tunnel under the highway to the other side. That would definitely have been easier, both on my body and my pride. Note to self for next time.
I don’t know what all those curmudgeons on TripAdvisor were talking about. I thought this place was sigh inducing. Okay, the beach isn’t sandy, but the blue suede sea, checked by the rocks, enters the cove in voluptuous, rolling swells without breaking into waves, and just dissolves into the shore, never ceasing to be serene, gentle. Curved around the edge of the water, there is a narrow bed of some kind of reedy, gingery seaweed, just like the wavy, Titian-colored tresses of Botticelli’s Venus.
There it was. The birthplace of Aphrodite. The rock where she burst forth from a spray of sea foam. A place that countless devotees of the ancient cult of Aphrodite held holy, and where modern, lovelorn Cypriots come to pray for love. It does have a certain reverence-demanding quality to it.
I walked along the beach, up to the sandy part mentioned in EdyT’s TripAdvisor review. There in the sand, I saw where someone had placed a bunch of stones in the outline of a big heart. The waiter’s words instantly came back into my head: if you find a stone in the shape of a heart…. Was this what he was talking about? I couldn’t take any chances. So, I stripped off my clothes—silently confirming to myself that this was precisely why I wear my swimsuit under my clothes when I explore near any swimmable body of water—stashed them, my iPhone and my rental car key under a bush, and got to work.
That heart outline was composed of about 20 stones in all, and some of them were about the size of a softball, so I couldn’t take them all in one trip. I took as many as I could in my hands and the bra cups of my swimsuit, and I swam out to the rock. I had to find holes or cracks in the rock that would accommodate each stone without it falling out in the tide and sinking, which was complicated by the fact that there were hordes of crabs living in most of the waterline level holes. I paddled, circumnavigating that big rock, buoyed up by the ocean swells, grabbing on and climbing at times, apologizing to the various crabs and sea monkeys I disturbed in the process, until I found secure homes for each one of those stones. It took me about six trips, all told.
When I finished, I just floated on my back in the cove, and laughed at myself for being such a silly, romantic dork. But, I say, better a romantic dork, than someone who can only see “just a rock” and a “horrible car park.”
Then, a big tour bus full of Russians showed up and invaded my peaceful scene, so, I rose from the sea like Venus, collected my things from under the bush, and took the nice, easy, non-contusion-inducing pedestrian tunnel back to the parking lot.
On my way back to town, I stopped to buy a bottle of water at a little roadside convenience store, and I noticed a framed photo of the Aphrodite’s Rock site behind the register. What caught my eye about it was that the central focus of the photo was not the big rock out in the sea, but another, bigger outcropping of rock that looked more like a separation from the cliff, that jutted out into the water, but wasn’t surrounded by the ocean. I got a vaguely sick feeling in my stomach.
“This one,” she said, pointing to the central one on the photo that extended from the land.
“Not that one?” I said, pointing to the rock way out in the water, that I had just spent the last 90 minutes or so swimming out to and climbing on to plant little, stone love seeds inside of.
“No, it’s this one,” she said, tapping the photo to indicate the other rock that you can walk to without getting wet, or even taking your shoes off.
“Yes, it’s this one.” She was certain.
“Crap!” I exclaimed.
“What?” she inquired, a bit alarmed.
“Oh…nothing,” I sighed, and walked dejectedly away.
Story of my life. I go on a pilgrimage all the way to the church of the nativity of the goddess of love, and I end up mistakenly worshipping at an outbuilding. Disqualified on a technicality. But, then I had to laugh at myself again, when I remembered that the whole thing is made up anyway. The entire point of fixing a location for such a mythical notion is to give people—in times gone by, and now—a place that triggers for them an openness to the feelings represented by the goddess. When you look at it that way, it doesn’t really matter which rock I tucked those stones into. It’s really just all about deserving the magic.
There are a few cardinal rules of travel. Number One on the list, in my opinion, is: never pass up an opportunity to use the restroom, especially a clean one, because you never know when your next chance will be. Number Two: always keep a packet of emergency tissue in your pocket, for obvious, related reasons. So, in my book, Rules Number One and Number Two are all about Number One and Number Two. Sorry, I know it’s not sexy, but, ask any seasoned traveler if they disagree with me. I don’t think they will.
Rather than put this next thing as Rule Number Three, I’m going to add it as a subpart to Rule Number Two, to emphasize its importance: make sure to keep some single denomination coins or bills handy, because, in a lot of places around the world, the potty stop comes at a price. I learned this lesson the hard way.
I was in central Turkey, in Konya to be exact, to visit the tomb of the Sufi mystic, Rumi, and to see a “Sema,” the meditative ceremony of the Mevlevi, or “whirling dervishes” of the Sufi order. Once Rumi and I had run out of things to talk about, I decided to take the bus to Cappadocia to see the early Christian cave dwellings among the peculiar “fairy chimney” rock formations.
I had read that Cappadocia is difficult to explore on one’s own, as everything is kind of far apart and difficult to find, public transportation doesn’t adequately cover the interesting parts, and rental car GPS units don’t have very accurate information for the area. So, I hired a local driver. Problem solved.
Before I left Konya, I sent a message to the driver to tell him which bus I would be on, so he could pick me up in the town of Göreme (part of Cappadocia) later that afternoon. It was about a 4-hour bus ride, with some stops along the way.
The long distance buses in Turkey have “flight attendants” that push a cart up and down the aisle and serve drinks and snacks, including yummy Turkish tea. So, by our second stop, I had to pee pretty urgently. The driver pantomimed to me when I got off the bus that I only had five minutes. I had already seen them leave one guy at the previous stop because he dawdled at the snack bar, so I scampered off, quick as a bunny, to find the restroom. It was waaaay off behind the bus station, down a long path. But, thankfully, I got there in time. It was one of those squat-over-a-hole-in-the-ground deals, with no tissue, and pretty filthy, but I’m used to all of those things by now. When nature calls, you do what you gotta do.
When I came out, there was an old man standing at the exit, holding a dish with a couple coins in it. He wanted me to pay. Excuse me? Since when has one had to pay to use the bathroom at a bus station? Transit depots are normally the one place you can be sure there will be no charge to use the toilet. Furthermore, it wasn’t like it was a super luxe “comfort station” with Japanese robotic toilets that have white noise recordings and automatic bum-washers with scented blow driers, for which I would have been more than happy to pay. It was a third-world latrine, buzzing with flies. Nevertheless, had I had my purse with me, I would have paid him anyway. But, I didn’t. I realized I had left it on the bus, which should tell you just how badly I had to go! I usually know better than to leave my bag unattended. That should be Rule Number 1(a).
As I didn’t have time to go get some money and come back to him, I just brushed past the old guy, and made a run for it back to the bus. The old man hobbled and yelled after me in Turkish, I imagine some very unflattering things. I jumped on the bus, the driver closed the door behind me, and we drove off before I even got to my seat. I felt kind of bad about stiffing the old guy, but what could I do?
At the next stop, an hour later (and still two stops before Göreme, where I was supposed to get off), two men–one in a dark blue uniform-approached the bus and signaled the attendant. He stepped outside, and some kind of discussion ensued, wherein the uniformed guy showed the bus attendant a paper. Then, the attendant got back on the bus, pointed at me, and motioned for me to get off the bus. I shook my head “no,” it wasn’t my stop. He knew this, because he repeated “Göreme” to me every time he did the passenger head count after a stop, while he was taking the tickets of the people who just got on. And we weren’t in Göreme yet, I could see from the sign on the bus depot entrance.
He nodded kind of vigorously and waved at me to get up and follow him anyway. But, I was sure it wasn’t the right stop, so I shook my head “no,” again. I wasn’t budging, no way, no how. Then, the man in the blue uniform got on, and the attendant pointed me out to him. Mr. Uniform pointed right at me, said something loud and authoritative in Turkish, and made the universal “get the Hell off the bus, NOW” hand signal.
Gulp! I got up and started gathering my stuff, heart pounding. CrapCrapCrap! That old dude at the bathroom called the cops on me, told them what bus I had gotten on, and they were there to take me to prison, where I could pee for free for the rest of my life! A thousand horrors flew through my head. I’ve seen “Midnight Express,” and “Locked Up Abroad”–this was not good. If I hadn’t have recently used the facilities, I would have done it in my pants right then and there.
But, when I got off the bus, there was a big, jolly, grandfatherly guy there with my name on a sign. It was the driver, Mehmet. The paper I had seen Mr. Uniform–the station agent, as it turned out–show the bus attendant was Mehmet’s sign with my name. After they defibrillated me, and I came to and got back up off the ground, Mehmet explained that this stop was closer than Göreme to where he was that afternoon. He had tried to call me to to tell me to get off the bus there instead, but had only gotten automated messages saying I was unavailable. So, since he knew which bus I was on, he called the bus company and got them to give him the bus driver’s mobile number, so he could find out what time we’d be pulling in to that stop, and he just came and met me early. I was not, it seems, going to jail after all.
So, the moral to this story, gentle friends, is: just pay the Potty Man. If you don’t, your guilty conscience is gonna getcha!
Punctuality is not one of my superpowers. Especially, in the morning. However, Daniel, my trusty friend and driver in El Salvador, always shows up right on the dot. On that sunny morning we were to head up to explore El Salvador’s famed “Ruta de las Flores” in the mountains outside San Salvador, I had not quite gotten my act together by the time he arrived to pick me up. So, I asked him to stop someplace to get coffee before we headed out of town.
“Well, most of the best coffee grown here gets sold to Starbucks,” Daniel responded.
“Starbucks it is,” I directed without hesitation. And we were off for a cup of El Salvador’s finest.
I do love Starbucks. When I’m at home, I go to Starbucks now and then, but I’m really more of a Peet’s girl, to be honest. Or Philz. But, I’ve never seen either of those outside the U.S. Starbucks, on the other hand, is in major cities in many far-flung parts of the world. When I’m traveling, I generally prefer to go to local establishments, rather than an American export. But, once in a while, if a twinkle of homesickness flickers through me, or the road weariness sets in and I just can’t look at one more bowl of fish heads and chicken feet, Starbucks reliably functions as an oasis of familiarity. They are all exactly the same, the world over. I walk through the door, and it’s like being teleported home.
Even the different regional specialties in the glass case of pastries have a delightfully Starbuckian fungibility to them that renders them comforting. Down to their baristas’ relentlessly hilarious inability to ever get my name right on my cup, Starbucks is an amiable constant in my life of ever-changing scenery. When I need it, it hits my reset button, and sends me back out into whatever world awaits outside, refreshed and ready for the next new adventure. Plus, there are some places (*cough*Southeast Asia, except for the former French colonies*cough*) where instant Nescafe with Coffee-Mate powder is what passes for good coffee, and that’s just not right. Starbucks is truly a beacon of caffeinated hope in such forlorn places.
But, back to El Salvador and the Ruta de las Flores, before I forget what I came here to tell you.
The Ruta de las Flores—or, Route of the Flowers—is the sobriquet of a long squiggle of mountain road through El Salvador’s coffee country, and the five or so picturesque, colonial-era villages dotted along it. It’s a popular destination for a weekend drive, to poke through the artisan shops and historic churches, tour a coffee plantation, or enjoy a leisurely lunch in a flower-festooned courtyard restaurant.
Doing the whole route in one day is an ambitious itinerary, but that’s what I had planned. Due to my unplanned Starbucks run, though, Daniel and I were running a little behind schedule. Had we been on time, we would have long since whooshed past that uphill hairpin turn before that little, white hatchback conked out in the middle of our lane, right at the blindest point of the curve. But, we weren’t, so we hadn’t.
Traffic suddenly slowed way down to get safely around the disabled car and the two ladies nervously standing next to it. I was riding shotgun in our vehicle, so as we crept around them, my face came very close to the young woman standing next to the driver’s side door of the broken down car. Just as we passed her, she turned, and I caught her eye as she yelled, “Please, I need help!” (In Spanish, of course. I’m translating all the dialogue in this story for you. It’s just one of the many services we offer here at the QP.)
Now, I’m no rookie traveler, so, of course, I know that stopping to help allegedly stranded strangers is a giant No-No, and a quick way to get carjacked and/or robbed in many places, including the U.S. I also know that, sometimes, the bad guys use pretty young women as bait in “broken down car” trap schemes, because people are more likely to stop to help them than some big, sweaty guy. So, the rule is, if you see a stranded motorist, unless you know them, you are supposed to call it in to the authorities—not stop to help. Right? Right. This apparently goes double in El Salvador, where security is something of an issue, especially on the highways.
But, you guys, you should have seen her. I got a close look at her face as we drove past. Her lip was quivering, her eyes were big as saucers, and the sun glinted off the rising tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. She was in obvious distress.
“Stop, Daniel, we have to help them,” I said.
“What? You want to stop?” Daniel hesitated, torn between his wish to do what I asked and his training/instinct prohibiting him from stopping for strangers.
“Yes, stop, they’re in trouble!”
Daniel pulled the car over and rolled down the window. The young woman approached, and we could see she had what looked like professionally done makeup, and her hair was delicately coiffed and arranged around a little tiara-like headband embellished with tiny pearls.
A bride! On her way to her wedding! The poor lamb had her bridal gown, veil, cases of champagne for the reception, boxes of decorations for the party, and various trousseau items, packed in the back of her car, which had given up the ghost in the middle of that blind curve on the way up the mountain. Neither she nor her auntie, who was with her, were able to get a cellular signal, and, per the prevailing road wisdom, no one was stopping to help them. They were stuck there, melting in the hot El Salvador sun, while her wedding guests were already starting to congregate in Ataco, the last town at the far end of the Ruta de las Flores.
Normally, Daniel drove me around in a compact sedan. But, as luck would have it, that day, the sedan had not been available for some reason, so we had a minivan with plenty of room to transport the ladies and all the wedding regalia. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe Not. Either way, I’ve never seen a more relieved person than that girl when we said we would take her and all the stuff to the wedding venue. Seriously, a picture of her pretty face at that moment in time should be inserted into the definition of the word “relieved” in all dictionaries.
Once all the wedding paraphernalia was loaded into the back of our van, auntie agreed to wait with the car for the help that would be coming as soon as we could contact someone. The girl, whose name we learned was Maricela, climbed in the van and tried to compose herself. She was shaking, overheated, and tears were about to ruin her beautiful bridal makeup. I pointed all the air-conditioner vents at her to cool her down, and gave her some tissue to dab her eyes.
“Don’t cry,” I said in as soothing a tone as I could muster. “They can’t start without you!”
“That’s true,” she laughed, relaxing a little.
As we chatted, getting to know each other and distracting ourselves from the Herculean job Daniel was doing behind the wheel to get us to the church on time, I asked how long she had been stuck there by the side of the road. When she said it had been about 20 minutes, I commented that her angels must be looking out for her, because if we hadn’t stopped at Starbucks before leaving San Salvador, we would have missed her. “I work for Starbucks,” Maricela said. I guess her angels have mermaid tails.
Maricela eventually got a cellular signal, and was able to alert her waiting family and fiancé that she was, indeed, en route. “Yes, I’m on my way now. A tourist in a minivan picked me up and is bringing me. Yes, a tourist! I know, can you believe it?” Her fiancé, Rodrigo, asked to talk to me, and thanked me profusely, in perfect English, for rescuing his bride from the side of the road, and effusively promised that I would always have a place to stay in El Salvador from now on, anytime I wanted to come. I guess it really is unusual to stop and help stranded motorists there.
Finally, we arrived—on time, no less! Go, Daniel, Captain Punctuality!—and deposited the bride and all her things at the appointed place for her to get ready for the nuptials. Maricela, of course, insisted that Daniel and I come to the wedding. I was hardly dressed for it, but she was adamant. We were coming to her wedding.
We had about an hour to kill while the bride finished getting ready, so Daniel suggested we go take a quick tour of a coffee processing plant just down the road. It was interesting to see the process, from when the beans get delivered from the plantations, through sorting, fermentation, drying, to bagging.
The warehouse was full of large, stacked, burlap sacks of El Salvador’s premium coffee beans, ready for export. (They export all the best quality beans, and sell the runts and broken reject beans—which taste the same, but don’t look as pretty—locally.) I asked the attendant where those sacks of beans were headed. “Starbucks,” he replied. Of course. It was like Starbucks’ advertising department had purchased product placement slots in the movie of my day.
Back at the church, Daniel and I sat in a pew about halfway back, on the aisle. The other guests filed in, all dressed to the nines—statuesque women in beauty pageant-worthy gowns, clean-shaven men, redolent of aftershave, in stylish, tailored suits, little boys pulling at their starched, white collars, and little girls in poofy, pastel, ruffled confections. And then there was me. Perspiring away in my khaki cargo shorts, a big, floppy, broccoli green, gauze tunic top, and dusty, clunky Birkenstocks. Fitting right in, as usual. Daniel was dressed professionally, so he was fine. But I stuck out like a sore, underdressed thumb. No one said anything to me, but from the looks I was getting, I could tell they were all thinking “What the heck is that tourist lady doing here? Can’t she tell a private event is about to take place?” Believe me, you ain’t seen no Stink Eye until you’ve gotten the Salvadoran Stink Eye. It stings.
But, then, Maricela came down the aisle on her daddy’s arm, as beautiful and radiant as any bride ever was. When she saw me, her face lit up even more, and she waved to me. She leaned in and told her dad “That’s the one who picked me up on the road,” and his face lit up, too, and he nodded to me. After that, everyone knew I was not some rude, foreign wedding crasher, but a bride-approved attendee of the event, who obviously just didn’t know how to dress for a special occasion.
The wedding was beautiful. Fireworks announced the new couple as they emerged from the church, and we pelted them with rice. Once outside, both mamas—the bride’s and the groom’s—and various family members, came up to thank and hug me, and make sure I was coming to the reception. Word spread like wildfire after that about the whole car breakdown debacle, and my role in it. I instantly went from suspicious interloper to celebrity. All my sartorial sins were absolved.
The reception was quite the fancy shindig. I would have felt really self-conscious in that setting, clad as I was, were it not for the nonstop stream of warm, friendly people coming up to make a fuss over me for helping Maricela, and hear my account of the harrowing rescue. Everyone embraced me so enthusiastically, I worried for a moment that maybe we should leave, so as not to draw focus away from the newlyweds. It was their day, after all. But, I shouldn’t have worried. The second lovely Maricela and her handsome new husband entered the room, the sparks of happiness emanating from them commanded all attention, as it should have been, and I was able to go back to inconspicuously snatching fudge-covered strawberries from the chocolate fountain table, unheeded by the crowd.
After Daniel had listened to me tell the story of rescuing Maricela for about the hundredth time, as soon as we had a moment alone, he said to me, in his soft-spoken, gentle way, “Miss Quin, you know, with all due respect, if I hadn’t been able to see that she was clearly a high class lady, from how she was put together, and how she spoke, I would never have let her in the car, no matter what you said.” So, there you have it, gentle friends. I was greedily basking in a shower of love, affection and gratitude for having bravely saved a damsel in distress on her wedding day, taking all the credit, and when all was said and done, it really wasn’t even my call. Sorry, Daniel! Thanks for looking out for me. I hope this post sets the record straight.
On the drive back to San Salvador that night, I looked at my phone to check the time, noticed the date for the first time that day, and smiled to myself. It was my parents’ wedding anniversary. If my mom was still with us, it would have been their 52nd. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, a good sign for a long and happy marriage for Maricela and Rodrigo, for sure. There is, apparently, no traditional gift associated with the 52nd wedding anniversary, like paper, glass or silver, etc. So, let’s just say it’s coffee. Starbucks’ Reserve El Salvador Estate beans, to be exact.
I have not been in my right mind for quite some time, gentle friends. Before the amused chorus of “you don’t say” rises from amongst you, I should be clear, this time, I’m talking about the right hemisphere of my actual brain. You know how, apparently, the left side of the brain controls logic, reason, analytical thought, and verbal skills, and the right side is where creativity, art, music, imagination and rainbow unicorns live? Well, I’m a lawyer, so you know my zip code is on the left side of town. I’m all about words, not pictures. Recently, however, I decided to pay a visit to the other side, just to have a look around.
It all happened quite innocently, at first. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to take cooking classes. As most such courses focus on formulae (recipes) and technique mastery—i.e., science—my left brain stays comfortably in command, while my poor right brain stands off to the side, whispering ways to freestyle the recipe into something even more magical with other ingredients when I get home.
I took several cooking classes in Vietnam, and each featured a segment on fruit and vegetable carving to garnish the finished plates. I, of course, sucked at that part. I even cut the bejeesus out of my thumb while attempting to render a lotus blossom from the butt end of a carrot.
I do not like sucking at things. (Insert Beavis & Butthead snicker here.) Ordinarily, if I can’t do something well, I just avoid it. And, although one might argue that I could easily avoid fruit carving, something about it challenged me. I became determined to master at least one tomato or carrot flower, even if it killed me.
So, I hired myself a fruit carving sensei, and buckled down. And I must say, aided by good instruction and the proper tools (there are special fruit carving knives), as well as a bunch of practice, I got to where I could turn out a respectable variety of blossoms and woodland creatures from everyday items found in your local produce aisle. Not too shabby, eh? Remember me next time you have a buffet table to decorate for a bridal shower or red carpet awards show viewing party.
Emboldened by my admittedly moderate success at crafting fantasy vegenalia, I decided to take it to the next level: Tattooing. On people, not fruit. Such an obvious next step, I know, forgive my prosaicness.
As I quickly discovered, tattooing isn’t something you can just sign up for at the Learning Annex and go do. The people in the industry don’t make it easy to get in—and they shouldn’t. Basically, the way to learn is to get an established tattoo artist to teach you, in an apprenticeship. There are some instructional materials available for purchase online, but I wanted to do it properly, so I wasn’t about to go to correspondence school. After much investigation and multiple inquiries, the tattoo masters at Bangkok Ink agreed to take me on for tutelage.
Bangkok Ink has a deep bench of really talented tattoo artists, including Krit, who specializes in traditional bamboo tattooing—no machine, just tapping the tattoo into the skin by hand with long needles. This guy does cleaner, more precise work in bamboo than most artists can do with a machine. It’s something to behold. They also have a relationship with a Buddhist temple, where sacred Sak Yant tattoos—done bamboo style, and supposedly embodying a sort of protective magic charm—are blessed by a monk, and sealed with a piece of gold leaf.
When they have room, Bangkok Ink also takes on students. It’s kind of a commune of learning, where all the resident tattooists take part in helping out the newbies. You can even learn bamboo tattooing from Krit, if you want, but I wanted to start with the modern machine style.
I was so nervous. I had no idea if I was going to have any aptitude for this at all, and I sure didn’t know if I was going to fit in at the shop. I was the oldest person there by a good margin, and my image is pretty clean cut. I could just see the cartoon thought bubbles over their heads when I walked in that first day, words in Comic Sans font, saying “What’s that middle-aged Farang (Thai for ‘foreigner’) lady doing here? Someone give her directions to Starbucks.”
To top it off, the day I arrived, nobody knew who I was, because they had been expecting a man (I get that a lot because of my name), and Aum, the tattoo artist who was supposed to teach me, was in the hospital following a bad motorcycle accident. But, when the owner, Martin, arrived, all got sorted out quickly, another artist took over the task of instructing me, and I got down to work.
It was all very informal, but immediately hands on. My teacher printed out some illustrations of various things off the internet, handed me some special carbon paper, and told me to make a stencil of the image by tracing over it to get the carbon on the back side of the paper. My first several tries were dreadful, and I got purple carbon paper ink all over myself and everything around me. After I got a stencil of a big, cabbagey-looking flower sort of passably acceptable, she gave me a hunk of pigskin they got from the butcher, and showed me how to transfer the stencil ink to the pigskin using a tube of Mennen SpeedStick deodorant. Then, as the stencil dried, it was time to learn how to assemble and use the tattoo machine.
I labored over my first practice effort for almost five and a half hours. When I was done, hand cramped into a nautilus curl, Martin looked at my work, dispassionately said “not good enough,” and went on about his business.
I was so demoralized, I went home that night thinking, “what the hell am I doing here?” I was sure I’d made a huge mistake.
But, Day 2 went a little better. Same routine: pick an image, make the stencil, transfer to pig skin, and ink with the machine.
It was still not something you’d actually want to put on a human being’s body, but nevertheless, some improvement was evident. Praise was received. I verily skipped home. Maybe I wasn’t going to suck so much after all.
Day 3, tried shading. Another disaster. I almost cried. Suckage, assured. Dragged my ass home in a funk. This endeavor was going to turn me bipolar before long.
It didn’t help my morale any that there was another student there, Waf, from Belgium, who started two days before I had, and on his third day there was already working on real live people, doing beautiful work. In fairness, he was an artist to begin with, so he already had the skill and confidence to gracefully create images. This was just a new medium for him. He was great, right out of the gate. And, so nice and encouraging to me, too, as I struggled along my much steeper learning curve. If he wasn’t so nice, I’d have been really jealous of him.
Two other guys—Ori and Tom—who were not beginners (at least, not by the time I got there) were also in residence. When they weren’t cracking us up, they were spending some time polishing their already impressive skills, banking some experience, and developing their individual styles.
When the shop was quiet, Ori would get bored and tattoo his own leg, while sipping a beer for the pain. And, can I just tell you, even though he was half in the bag, and all twisted up like that, his lines came out as clean and perfect as if he’d used a ruler. Dude is a natural. (Click here to see more of his work.)
I, on the other hand, was clearly not a natural. You could just hear the rusty gears creaking in my head and smell the smoke coming out of my ears as I concentrated so hard on getting the lines even and the shading nice and feathery. My teacher was pretty laissez faire, which was probably good, as I get very frustrated and touchy when I’m having a hard time mastering something.
From the look of the work I was turning out, I was having a very hard time. The only thing I had any immediate gift for was creative draping of pashminas around the other guys’ more modest female clients who didn’t want to expose too much while they were getting worked on. A useful skill, sure, but not what I was there for.
But, around day 5, something shifted. Things started to click, and the machine felt more natural in my hand. I held it less tightly, and it flowed more easily over the pigskin, and suddenly, my lines looked better. The shading looked softer. The colors were going in nice and solidly. Day 5 was a good day, indeed. In fact, at the end of it, my teacher said I was ready to work on a person. I said no, I’m not ready. But, Pang, the manager came by and looked over my shoulder, clucked with approval, and went and put my name on the schedule board for a live, human model the following Monday.
I tell you what, if there’s anything that’ll motivate you to spend the whole weekend hunched over a piece of spoiling pigskin in the Bangkok heat practicing lining and shading, it’s the knowledge that some naïve kid who wants a free tattoo is going to be putting his pristine arm in your hands to indelibly mark for all the world to see. I didn’t want some epic tattoo fail ending up on the Internet—or anywhere else, for that matter—on my watch.
Monday arrived—Day 8—and I hadn’t slept much. I made sure to eat a good breakfast so my hands wouldn’t shake, and went to the shop to await my first victim. When he arrived, two hours late, I was nervous, but composed. He didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Thai, so Aw, the shop assistant, translated for us. The model was a skinny slip of a kid of about 20, and he indicated he wanted his tattoo on the inner side of his forearm, but he didn’t have any particular image in mind. I found that strange, but I had bigger fish to fry.
We sat down at the computer together and sifted through various tattoo styles until he saw one he liked: a neo-traditional pocket watch flanked by some roses. He was a toothpick, though, so the image wrapped almost all the way around his arm, and he refused to let me shrink it to fit the flat part of his forearm. But, as Tim Gunn says, it was time to make it work.
In those last few seconds before I touched the needle to his skin for the first time, I stopped to take a breath, and looked at his clean, smooth baby skin. It was never going to be the same again. Whether it would look like a poem or like tire tracks by the end of the day was up to only me.
Unfortunately, I was beset by technical difficulties, right away. The power cable to my machine was wonky, and I kept losing power. Ori fixed that for me. Then, because of the location of the tattoo site, and the way we were sitting, my boob was in the kid’s hand the whole time I was working. He didn’t complain, though, and I forgot about it after a while. Also, because I was obsessively cleaning the skin as I worked, the stencil was rubbing off.
Aum, who had returned from the hospital a couple days before, was standing over me, his eyes still swollen and black from his accident, urging me not to stop, to just continue working freehand.
But, he had a whole lot more confidence in me than I did that I could do that without utterly defacing this child’s arm. So, I kept stopping, referring back to the printed image, and manually drawing the stencil back on. After about the fifth time redrawing the stencil, though, Aum was getting impatient with me, saying we were going to be there all night.
I said an inner “TAWANDA!!” and did my best to finish the rubbed-off parts freehand. And, for a first effort, I think it came out reasonably well. Only took six hours. And, boy, did I sleep like a rock that night.
The ensuing days were a flurry of sweet, tough, Thai kids happy to let me cut my teeth on them in exchange for free tattoos. Oddly enough, they usually didn’t have any specific image in mind when they came in, frequently saying “Up to you,” when I’d ask (through an interpreter) what they wanted. Up to me? Really? Well, then guess who’s getting a tattoo of a penguin in a hula skirt dancing on the tip of a giant corndog! That usually got them engaged in the image selection process pretty quickly. It also ensured that I ended up doing a lot of skulls flanked by roses. It’s a classic choice, easy to make on the fly.
In fact, there was only one time someone came in already prepared with a picture of what he wanted. It was a kind of rough illustration of a knuckle dagger that he wanted tattooed on his tricep, exactly as pictured, but embellished with some blood dripping from the blade. I had to do an especially good job on this one, too, as my victim had absolutely gorgeous work done already by my comrades—mostly by Tom—and I didn’t want my contribution to the glorious canvas of his body to be an ugly toad. In the end, both he and I were very happy with the result.
Once I found my footing, just being in the shop was a blast. We had a mild, comic uprising when someone put techno music on, as it made everyone’s lines come out all uneven and bumpy. In fact, the only music no one ever complained about was Johnny Cash. I settled a mystery for those who thought the clients were sniffing glue for the pain during tattoo sessions, by imparting my earlier acquired knowledge of the universal Thai addiction to menthol nasal inhalers (they really are great if you are feeling dizzy from the heat or pain). Waf painted fantastic graphic murals—his original wheelhouse—on the exterior walls of the shop. Tom would sing while he worked. Pang would bring us food, sometimes with chicken feet in it, that we’d eat at the picnic table on the patio, sometimes under the laundry strung up to dry. Groups of loud, vacationing blonde girls would come in groups of three or four, get matching tattoos, and squawk away at the top of their voices about their supposedly-wild-but-actually-pretty-tame sexual exploits in a manner clearly contrived to garner the interest of the guys in the shop, but that resulted only in us making vicious fun of them after they’d left. (Seriously, ladies…no one cares who you blew.) It was very colorful, in more ways than one.
One afternoon, we were all absorbed in our respective projects, and out of the quiet, Tom said: “Do you guys remember that Friends episode where Phoebe and Rachel go to get tattoos?” Ori, without even looking up, answered, “No, I didn’t watch that show.” I, however, had actually just been thinking about that very episode a couple days before, so I chimed in with, “Yes! And Phoebe chickened out, and just had a dot on her collarbone, saying ‘it’s a lily, as seen from space!’” To which, Tom responded “No, it was ‘This is a picture of the earth from space!” Ori finally interrupted us and said, in a mildly exasperated tone, “No, it was: “It’s the way my mother sees me from heaven.” Tom turned around, eyebrow cocked, and answered, “I thought you said you never watched it.” Ori shrugged. “Well, I didn’t want to admit seeing it, but if you’re going to quote it, you should at least get it right.”
(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)
As my time at Bangkok Ink drew to a close, it was clear to me that, although I had come a very long way from that first disaster of a cabbage flower on pigskin, I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go if I’m going to be anything but a dilettante at this. I am really hoping to get back there someday, to see how much better I can become. I’m also looking into other places in the world where I can continue to learn and improve my skills as I continue my travels. We shall see.
If I’m honest, though, I think it’s safe to say that, unlike Waf and Ori and Tom, I’m just not an artist. I sense that the best I’ll ever be at this is a competent technician. I’ll always have to farm out creation of the actual artwork to a real artist, or, you know…the Internet. I can live with that, though. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ll just never really be completely in my right mind. I mean, brain.
It’s holiday time, and once again, people everywhere are talking about miracles. So, gather ‘round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale of a truly rare wonder. An occurrence of such extraordinary unlikeliness and infrequency that seeing a giant octopus piloting Halley’s Comet like a chariot across the Golden Gate Bridge would seem banal by comparison.
I’m talking about me getting out of bed before dawn to see the sunrise. Not to compare this to the big, faith-based marvels that inspire our various winter festivities, but anyone who knows me, has worked with me, or tried to get me on the phone, much less up and dressed, before double-digit hours in the morning, will confirm that, for me to voluntarily haul my carcass upright and into motion while it’s still dark out, when the building isn’t even on fire…well, it’s gonna take nothing short of a forklift miracle.
But, such miracles do occur now and then. Usually as a result of peer pressure. And, to be honest, I always feel like I’ve been tricked; defrauded out of my early morning snuggle time by the promise of beholding tangerine magic that never quite delivers. But, I keep falling for it.
It all started years ago in India, when my friends Rajendra and Bhawani told me it would be simply inexcusable to miss seeing the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. I was pretty sure the Taj Mahal would look amazing at any time of day, so I politely declined. They were so persistent, though, that I started to worry that I might actually miss something astonishing if I didn’t make the effort. Accordingly, I dragged myself out of bed in the wee hours, grumbled resentfully through the dark streets of Agra, and followed Rajendra and Bhawani to the foggy marble terrace behind the Taj Mahal, where Rajendra said the view of the sun bursting over the horizon would be most awe inspiring. And we waited.
There’s a river winding through the sands behind the Taj Mahal, and as dawn approached, daylight started to illuminate the land, and nearby villagers came out to the bank of the river…and squatted down. From above on the terrace, I had to squint to get a good look at them. It was getting lighter and lighter out, but we still hadn’t seen the sun come up. But, the lighter it got, the more villagers came to the river and copped a squat, and the clearer it became what they were doing.
I turned to Rajendra and said, “Are they doing what I think they’re doing?” My friend Jennifer tried to lighten the mood, knowing well how much of a morning person I’m not. “No, I think they are taking pictures of the Taj Mahal! They are getting down low to frame the shot!” Bless her. She’s such an optimist. I looked at Rajendra, the arch of my eyebrows demanding an answer. “Please tell me you didn’t drag me out of bed in the middle of the night just to come watch people poop on the river bank!” Rajendra laughed nervously, and said the people were, indeed, relieving themselves. I turned away in exasperation, and in the opposite direction, saw…the sun! It had come up on the other side!
“LOOK!” I shrieked and pointed, and Jennifer and Rajendra and Bhawani and I ran around to the front of the main tomb building, just in time to see the fat, amber yolk of the sun climb into the Indian sky over the tip of the red marble monuments on the, yes, east side of the complex.
“Why were we back there watching people go to the bathroom in the river when the sunrise is over here!” I whined. Rajendra looked positively nonplussed. “I don’t understand, it usually comes up over there, I don’t know what happened this time,” he said. Well, that could happen to anybody. You know how unpredictable the sun can be.
After that, I swore I wasn’t getting up to see any more damned sunrises. Sunsets are just as good—no, better, because no one has to get up earlier than they want to, and they virtually demand to be accompanied by a relaxing cocktail. That’s definitely more my speed.
Fast forward to last year. I was on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea. For some reason that made perfect sense to me at the time, I booked a hotel on the east coast, on the opposite side of the island from the main town. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel also happened to be next to a large, volcanic tuff cone named Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called “Sunrise Peak.” You can see where this is headed.
It was off-season, and when I arrived, it looked like I might be the only guest in the place. So, when the English-speaking gentleman the owner had dispatched to meet me upon check-in (that’s Korean hospitality for you) told me that they had set up a special sunrise viewing terrace just for me on the side of the building facing Seongsan Ilchulbong, and would be waiting for me at 5:15 a.m. with coffee and pastries and blankets for snuggling…well…it would have been rude to say no.
So, up I got. At least, this time, I didn’t have to go very far, and I didn’t have to watch anyone at their morning toilet. And there was coffee and pastry. That made it much more bearable. But, the sunrise still failed to deliver the advertised spiritual epiphany-inducing chills. In fact, as if sensing my bad attitude, it failed to show at all.
This is what it looked like just before dawn:
And this is what it looked like just after:
Pfft. I shoulda stood in bed. I renewed my vow that the only sunrise I would ever see would be one on the end of a long and festive night of carousing, not one I had to crawl out of bed for.
Then came Anton. Anton is a professional driver (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004371273617&sk=about), and when he doesn’t have a client booked, he kills time doing airport runs from the Yogyakarta airport in Java. That’s how we met. We hit it off like a house fire, so I hired him to drive me around and show me the sights.
Lucky for me, he also knows all the good local places to eat, and introduced me to a bunch of Indonesian dishes I might never have discovered otherwise, like “bakso,” a wonderful meatball soup with noodles. And a popular local tofu brand, called “Poo.” No river bank required.
One of the most notable sights near Jogja is a massive, 9th century Buddhist temple called Borobudur. When I told Anton I wanted to go see it, he said we needed to set out at 4 a.m. to get there by sunrise. Oh no, I told him, nothing doing. I don’t care about the sunrise. We can just go around noon. He said okay, but knitted his eyebrows and looked down into his bakso. After a couple bites, he said, “Quin, if you want to go later, we can, but it will be very hot and very crowded. I don’t think you will like it.”
If there’s anything I hate more than getting up early, it’s oppressive heat and crushing crowds. He had my attention. I proposed we go at, like, 8 a.m., and avoid the heat. Now, we were negotiating. He argued that we would still have to set out at 6:30 to get there by 8, and it would still be hot, and with all that discomfort, we wouldn’t even be rewarded with the sight of the sunrise. So, why not go a couple hours earlier, see the magical sunrise over the temple, with the Merapi volcano in the distance, and then get in and out of the temple before the bus tour groups show up and the heat gets too bad. He knew a secret, special place up on a hill over the temple where we could watch the sunrise, and it wouldn’t be crowded, and we wouldn’t have to pay the entrance fee the hotel near the temple charges to let people watch the sunset on their terrace. I reluctantly agreed.
That’s right. Anton talked me not only into getting up, but into climbing a mountain before dawn! He really is a wizard. And this was my reward (if the video below does not show, click here):
I have to admit, it was pretty cool. And we got in to Borobudur in time to see the giant bumblebees perching on the Buddha’s head–Buddhabees–before the stone got too hot in the sun for them to land. Point: Anton.
A week later, I asked Anton if he would take me to Mount Bromo, the big, active volcano in east Java. It was a couple days’ drive away, but he was willing. On the second day, Anton started preparing me for the idea that I would have to get up and trek up the mountain before dawn.
“Why,” I asked. “It’s a volcano, it’s open all day. We can go in the afternoon.”
“No, we can only drive up so far in my car, and then you have to take a jeep, and the jeep drivers only work in the morning.”
“I bet we can find one who would be willing to go later,” I said confidently.
When we got up to the lodge at the edge of the ash plane surrounding the cone, Anton checked with his contact, who confirmed that it had to be a pre-dawn run. I was so annoyed. Anton assured me that, once again, the heat would be so ghastly in the afternoon, that the trade off of getting up early would be worth it.
Now, Mount Bromo is up at almost 8,000 feet, and it was really cold that night. It was the only time I broke out my packable down jacket in the entire year I have been on the road, so I was especially skeptical about this heat avoidance claim. But, there was nothing to be done. Anton–who ordinarily stays in bed while his clients meet the jeep driver for the trek up the mountain—after advocating so hard to make me go early, had to get up and go with me. We froze our assets off in the dark in the back of the jeep, as it lumbered off-road across the moonscape to the side of the volcano, and began to climb. About two-thirds of the way up, the path was so jammed with jeeps and motorbikes, that we had to stop and hike the rest of the way on foot. This did not improve my mood.
Anton walked along a few paces ahead of me through the crowd, cheerfully offering falsehoods of encouragement, like “just a few more meters and we are there, Quin!” when we were clearly nowhere close. Finally, at the top, there was a big, curved amphitheater carved into the hillside, from which you can look down onto the active, smoking cones of the volcano. And that is a truly remarkable view. But, once again, the sun came up on the opposite side! Tricked again. You would have to climb over the back side of the viewing platform and look out across the plains in the other direction to see the stupid sunrise. So, all that effort, and the sun came up in the wrong place.
Within a half hour after the sunrise, 99% of the people and the jeeps they came in were all gone. So, if we had waited, we could have driven right up to the top and hopped out of the jeep right at the amphitheater steps. And it wasn’t that hot. And I refuse to believe there isn’t a jeep driver willing to make a few extra bucks after the sunrise run is over. But, it sure was a marvelous, otherworldly sight. I’m just fairly sure it would be equally marvelous at noon. Or, even 9 a.m. Whatever. I’m not bitter.
In the meantime, I am back to my commitment to a “sunset only” policy for 2015. Sunsets are just more glamorous. And I’m more likely to be glamorous at the hour that they occur. I think we can all agree that’s an important factor. So, for me to get up voluntarily just for another sunrise, well…it would take a miracle.
Everybody has different levels of tolerance for solitude. Me, I’ve always had well-developed solitude management skills. I would do just fine on house arrest. It actually sounds kinda relaxing to me. Even when I was a little kid, when my mom would send me to my room for the early 70s version of a time out, she would come look in on me a while later and find me giggling and having a grand time, all by myself, no toys in sight. Sequestration wasn’t punishment to me at all. Rather, it was a welcome break, and an opportunity to check in to the vivid, interior amusement park of my head. It drove my poor mom bonkers.
I’ve never had any trouble going to movies or restaurants alone, and I rather prefer to go to museums alone. Well…at least, objectively alone. I often have very agreeable company right there in my mind. Don’t worry, I don’ t mean the kind they give you antipsychotic medication for. Let me back up.
Something most people don’t know about me is that I’m secretly fascinated with Bruce Lee. If anyone ever asked me that old chestnut of an interview question about who I’d most like to have dinner with, “Bruce Lee!” would fly out of my mouth before they even finished the question. Not because of his movies (although those are pretty cool), or the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death (although that is intriguing), or the supposed curse that felled his son (sad, but that movie was dreadful), but because everything I’ve ever read that he wrote, or that is attributed to him, strikes me as the kind of profound that is so simple, it should be common, but unfortunately isn’t. He had an understanding of human nature that was chillingly deep. If you read his philosophical writings, and remove them from the context of fighting, they apply in almost any situation. Dude was wise. Plus, he was not only a peerless philosopher and fighter, but also a wicked dancer—he was the 1958 Hong Kong Cha Cha Champion. I bet he could properly caramelize onions, too. Alas, we’ll never know.
Anyway, some time ago, I started having imaginary hangouts with Bruce Lee, in my head, whenever I found myself alone and bored. In these sessions, Bruce is never defending attacks from villains or breaking boards with his forehead. No, mostly, we bake pies, crochet sweaters for my cats, or put seasonal decorations around the house together, while I tell him about my current thoughts, problems or conflicts, as he listens quietly and nods, and, at appropriate intervals, says thought-provoking things like “if you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done,” or “a goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at”—pearls of wisdom that he actually did say, and that I find exceedingly helpful and insightful. I love my play dates with Bruce. I always feel better and more sorted out after we’ve spent time together. And, since I don’t actually talk to him out loud, no one is the wiser, and I haven’t been packed off for involuntary analysis over it. Yet. So, if you ever see me alone on the ferry or at a restaurant, or even in the car, and I seem a bit lost in thought, don’t mind me, chances are good that I’m hanging out with Bruce Lee in my head, and we’re canning peaches or something.
This quirk comes in tremendously handy for a solo traveler like me, as I seldom feel awkward sitting in a restaurant, going on an excursion, or just hanging out alone. However, it does nothing to comfort the multitudes of people who feel awkward around others who perambulate about all by themselves. When I said, above, that everyone has different levels of tolerance for solitude, I didn’t mean tolerance of just their own isolation. I also meant their tolerance of other people who are alone. As I wander, I am finding that the global comfort level with parties of one is generally low. People just don’t like to see someone alone.
There’s a host of reasons for this. Some are cultural. In Asia, as in other places where family is of paramount importance, people tend to see a person alone—particularly a woman—as someone who must have no family, no friends, no…minions. Their default thought is not that you are independent, or brave, and enjoying your freedom, voluntarily on your own. They might think that after talking to you, but at first blush, it just seems sad to them. They project onto you how they think they would feel if they were adrift alone, and feel sorry for you. It makes them uncomfortable.
Sometimes, it is economic. Restaurants are much happier to see couples or groups than a solo diner who is going to occupy a whole table and only order one person’s worth of food. Entertainment venues aren’t thrilled to have that vestigial seat empty next to you that they can’t sell unless another lone weirdo comes along. These are, of course, generalizations, but you get the idea. Put these factors together, and you have a recipe for resistance.
I’ve had restaurants refuse to seat me because I was alone, and others where they dispatched kitchen workers to sit with me so I wouldn’t be. Many tours, transportation shuttles, and cultural classes or events won’t allow a singleton to book, even if there are other parties already going. And don’t get me started on the dreaded “single supplement.” I ran into this problem so often, in so many contexts—from restaurants to snorkel excursions to candy-making classes to the cushy seats at the fancy VIP movie theaters in Bangkok—that by the time I got to Singapore, my patience on this issue was fraying just a tad. And then this happened.
There’s a massive Ferris wheel in Singapore called the Singapore Flyer. It was the biggest Ferris wheel in the world until earlier this year, when a bigger one opened in Las Vegas. It’s very cool; it has big, enclosed glass cabins that comfortably fit about eight or so people each, and moves almost imperceptibly in a 30-minute revolution that gives you breathtaking, eagle-eye vistas over the whole city, from the Marina Bay Supergrove to the Esplanade to Serangoon Road to the National Stadium.
They do this groovy thing, too, where they turn some of the cabins into lovely VIP dining cars, with linen tablecloths and candles and butlers, and take guests on a couple rotations while they serve a four-course repast. They do it for dinner, but also for high tea, which is one of my favorite things.
I went to the ticket office and tried to buy a ticket for the high tea service, but the cashier said there was a two-person minimum. I asked if other parties had already reserved, if the dining cars were shared, and if the table was communal. Yes, yes, and yes. So, I pointed out that their two-person minimum had been met, and that I would just join the group. The following exchange ensued:
“Would they take a party of three?”
“Then they don’t just take parties of two.”
“It has to be at least two.”
“But, you said there are other people already booked. Is it a private party?”
“Then, there will be more than two, and I should be able to go.”
“I can’t do that, each group has it’s own bill, and the minimum for each bill is for two people.”
“Ah, I see. Well, what if I just pay the minimum?”
“No, because they would prepare food for two people.”
“Lady, do I seriously look like someone who can’t put away two people’s worth of cucumber sandwiches and petit fours to you?”
She glared at me, said to wait while she got the manager, and snapped the box office window shut.
As I waited, I hatched a plan that, if the manager wouldn’t budge, I’d just buy two tickets and, when I showed up for it later, gesture to invisible Bruce Lee at my side, and say to the person at the entrance “yes, we are both here, can’t you see?” Just let them try to deny me admittance. But then, I pictured some guys in white coats waiting for me at the exit with butterfly nets, and thought better of it.
So, when no one had come back after almost a half hour, I surrendered and skulked away in defeat. Not that I couldn’t wait out the standoff, it’s just that, after a while, I’d had a chance to think about what they might do to my food if I persisted over their objections. I waited tables all through college, you see, and although I never sabotaged anyone’s victuals myself, I was witness to a few hidden kitchen vengeances that I’ve never forgotten. Don’t piss off people who serve you food or cut your hair, gentle friends. It’s just not worth the risk.
Still, the idea of high tea in Singapore had germinated, and I was determined to get my pinky in the air if it killed me. It just wasn’t going to happen above the skyline. Lucky for me, one of the best places for high tea in the world is right there in Singapore, in the Tiffin Room at the historic Raffles Hotel.
When I called for the reservation, and was asked how many of us there would be, I almost panicked and made a reservation for “Lee, Party of Two,” but I caught myself in time, and before committing, asked if there was a minimum party size. Thankfully, there wasn’t. At last!
On the appointed day, I arrived in the closest thing to Sunday Best that I carry with me when I travel, and was shown to a dainty little table in the corner, the surface of which was obscured almost entirely by a thick volume of the latest Vogue magazine. I asked the hostess if the table was already occupied, indicating to the magazine. No, she said, the magazine was for me. Because, I was alone. They wanted me to have something to distract me from the stares of pity, I guess. Still, it was pretty thoughtful, considering how most people feel about dining alone.
Nevertheless, I picked up the magazine and handed it back to her, thanking her for her thoughtfulness, and saying that I needed the space for scones and tarts and crustless curried chicken salad sandwich triangles. She didn’t need to know the truth: who needs Vogue when you’ve got Bruce Lee?